march 2019 | Volume 177
The cast of The 39 Steps. Photo by David Cooper.
This production of The 39 Steps by Hanying Chen’s new company, Circle Bright, just about defines Canadian theatrical multiculturalism: a British play staged in English with Chinese surtitles by a Canadian company in the Jewish Community Centre.
A theatrical tour de farce that parodically restages Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film with only four performers, the play is a showcase for comic acting and imaginative comic direction. Sarah Rodgers choreographs the inspired silliness and Jay Hindle, Ella Simon, David Marr and Kazz Leskard productively milk the frantic action and broad characterizations.
The self-consciously ridiculous premise of the play is that we’re in a movie theatre in 1935 when the print of the Hitchcock movie breaks. Two workers and two audience members decide to act out the story. Rodgers has added a piano player (Matt Grinke) to play Murry Price’s music (Price also designed the clever sound) and comically interact with the actors.
Hitchcock’s story, adapted from John Buchan’s novel, is itself a bizarre spy chase caper. The mysterious “39 steps” are a typically meaningless Hitchcockian MacGuffin. Hindle plays Richard Hannay, the debonair schmuck pursued by the cops and bad guys, Simon is the various femmes fatales, and Marr and Leskard take on all the other roles. As well, the four move set pieces and change their own costumes, dipping into an onstage trunk full of props and stuff.
Much of the fun comes from the quick changes and clever manipulation of Drew Facey’s set. A door on wheels is rotated, opened, closed, entered and exited to provide an effective and funny illusion of different locations. Gerald King’s lighting and Price’s music help Hindle create the suspense of the chase as he runs across fields, jumps through windows and makes his way along the outside of a moving train.
In another scene on the train Leskard plays a passenger, cop and conductor all within about ten seconds simply by turning his back, changing hats and accents. Simon makes a hilarious meal of removing her stockings while handcuffed to Hindle.
A lot of the action takes place in Scotland, and the cast gets a lot of mileage from playing with the Scottish accents.
I’m sure the Mandarin speakers in the audience appreciated the surtitles. I could have used English surtitles in places where the combination of accents and music made the dialogue hard to understand.
I commend Circle Bright’s initiative to lure a Chinese-Canadian audience to its production, and its decision to go with A-list actors, director and designers. I enjoyed this amusing but utterly lightweight piece but I hope the company lends its considerable resources next time to something with more substance.
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